Young people can experience huge benefits from participating in multiplayer online role playing games, according to Dr. Simon Bradford and Nic Crowe of Brunel University, West London.
Following a three -year study into 13-16 year olds playing Runescape, a game with over nine million members worldwide, the academics in Brunel University's School of Sport and Education, conclude that in contrast to recent criticisms of young people's use of technology and an emerging 'bedroom culture', online gaming worlds enhance rather than constrict the imagination of young people.
They offer an opportunity to experiment with different identities such as gender, race or ability, and also enable gamers to benefit from opportunities that they may not have access to in the real world.
According to Nic Crowe: “Virtual environments, like Runescape, form important new leisure spaces for the many young people who occupy them. In the real world, where streets or town centres have become inaccessible to many young people or are considered risky or unsafe by them or their parents, it is not surprising that virtual public space has become increasingly attractive as a leisure setting.
“Our research explored how Runescape's appeal lay in the provision of an environment in which young people can experiment (symbolically) with the cultural institutions and structures of the material world - a space in which young people can establish their presence, identity and meaning in ways that might not be accessible or permissible in their everyday lives.“
Runescape is one of the most accessed and popular of the virtual worlds, particularly among young people aged 11 -18. It takes the form of a Tolkeinesque quasi-medieval environment incorporating towns, buildings, dungeons, forests, landscapes and seascapes within which gamers live their virtual lives.
As in the material world, interactions between players are framed by the environment and life is determined through the social practices of those involved. Gamers can act out different subject positions and experience identities outside of their own material identity. They can also concentrate on particular characteristics that they may not be able to express in the real world.
Dr. Simon Bradford continues, “We met many players taking part in online role playing, sometimes to extend or to compensate for experiences in the real world. For example, young people whose parents could not afford a summer holiday enjoyed virtual holidays online - hanging out with friends, visiting beaches and going to clubs at night to meet new people.“
But these new virtual spaces are not simply about leisure. There also appear to be opportunities to develop and extend key learning skills outside of the realm of formal education. Dr. Bradford adds “We noted how entrepreneurial young players engaged in business deals online, experiencing positive opportunities often not open to them in the material world.“
“At a time when emerging technologies such as the internet, and computer games in particular, continue to be subject to suspicion and concern it is important that we also recognise the benefits of what is an increasingly popular and important activity for our young people.“
Simon Bradford and Nic Crowe are hoping to continue their research into gaming. They are planning to research behavioural differences in gender as their next key area of exploration.